Roy Orbison: The MGM Years – 1965-1973

RoyOrbison_TheMGMYears1965-1973Deluxe restoration of Roy Orbison’s MGM catalog

Roy Orbison’s titanic career had four distinct phases. His late ‘50s work for Sun set him up for his most commercially successful period at Monument in the early 1960s. And his return to stardom in the 1980s came after a period of retrenchment. In between, from 1965 through 1973, Orbison recorded a dozen albums for MGM, but edged only a few titles into the lower regions of the U.S. Top 40, including 1965’s “Ride Away” and “Breakin’ Up is Breakin’ My Heart,” and 1966’s Johnny Rivers-styled “Twinkle Toes.” Orbison’s late ‘60s and early ‘70s releases fared better in Australia, Canada and the UK, but amid the rising tide of of the British Invasion, folk rock and psychedelia, competing releases from Monument, and a lack of consistent promotion from MGM, the stateside success of these recordings remained limited.

Orbison left Monument on a high note, with the chart-topping success of “Oh, Pretty Woman,” but in moving to MGM he left behind producer Fred Foster, engineer Bill Porter, and RCA’s Nashville studio. Orbison expected that MGM would expand his career into film and television, but other than the B-movie The Fastest Guitar Alive (whose soundtrack is included here) and a few song placements, his multimedia dreams failed to come true. What he did get was an extraordinary degree of artistic freedom that resulted in the production of eleven MGM album releases in nine years, all of which are included here. Also included in the box set is a twelfth album, The Big O, released in the UK by London in 1970, and a collection of non-LP singles and B-sides.

Though not the hit-making machine of his Monument days, Orbison courted commercial success by writing and recording an enormous number of tracks, touring in support of his releases, and staying true to his core strengths as an artist. His first album for MGM, There is Only One Roy Orbison, retained the string accompaniment of his biggest hits, but with songs that don’t reach the emotion-searing crescendos of his Monument material. There’s a country element to many of the productions, with tinkling, slip-note piano and Mexicali-flavored acoustic guitars providing melancholy sorrow in place of heart-breaking drama. Orbison’s vocal on a remake of “Claudette” is nicely engaged, though the backing arrangement has neither the simplicity of his Sun-era demo or the revved-up energy of the Everly Brothers’ B-side. The album doesn’t really hit full stride until the middle of side two, with “Afraid to Sleep,” one of the few non-original titles, but a classic Orbison-styled drama.

His second MGM album, The Orbison Way, mixed orchestral ballads with pop numbers backed by the Candy Men. The orchestral numbers reached greater emotional heights than his previous album, but the singles (“Crawling Back” and “Breakin’ Up is Breakin’ My Heart”) found a lot of new competition on the charts of late 1965, and the album, released early in 1966, failed to make a commercial impression. Whether the style was out of step with the sounds of the time, or MGM failed to provide adequate promotion, the songs are excellent, the arrangements solid, and Orbison deeply invested in his performances. There are several memorable album tracks, including the stalwart “Maybe,” and a soulful electric piano solo by future Atlanta Rhythm Section founder Dean Daughtry on “Go Away.”

His next album, The Classic Roy Orbison, fared even worse commercially, with only the go-go “Twinkle Toes” denting the charts. The arrangements again include orchestration and band numbers, and though not as strong as the previous album, there are some true highlights, including the falsetto-laced “Pantomime,” the double-tracked vocal of “Going Back to Gloria” and the groovy beat of “Just Another Name for Rock and Roll.” The mid-tempo numbers don’t have the gravitas of Orbison’s best material, and the vocals don’t always sound deeply engaged. With his own writing failing to create hits, Orbison turned to an album of Don Gibson covers for 1967’s Roy Orbison Sings Don Gibson. It’s a comfortable, countrypolitan album, and Gibson’s songs fit Orbison well. Particularly worth hearing are Orbison’s reshaping of the classics “Sweet Dreams” and “Give Myself a Party.”

A similar songwriting detour for 1970’s Hank Williams the Roy Orbison Way, met with a similar lack of commercial success. The album’s rock-inflected sound was neither fish nor fowl; not rootsy enough to catch the attention of rock audiences, and too pop to find favor with country radio. One could imagine these arrangements being used on a mainstream television variety show. The tracks that work best, like “You Win Again,” find Orbison’s croon meeting Hank Williams’ sorrow half way, though even here, a background wah-wah guitar provides a distractingly dated touch. Orbison’s 1967 foray into film, The Fastest Guitar Alive, didn’t fare much better commercially. The soundtrack’s western-themed, folk-styled arrangements are unusual within the MGM catalog, and remain terrifically listenable. The closing “There Won’t Be Many Coming Home” was written to the film’s Civil War theme, but had a resonance with the Vietnam war that made it problematic for a U.S. single release.

Orbison’s operatic tenor, flights into falsetto and orchestrated rock ‘n’ roll grew increasingly nostalgic as the distance to his early-60s commercial prime widened. On the one hand, his releases weren’t climbing the domestic charts, on the other, he demonstrated unflinching artistic integrity in refraining from chasing trends. 1967’s Cry Softly Lonely One is filled with songs that would have been major hits four or five years earlier, but amid the psychedelic explosion of 1967, the three singles, including the superb Joe Melson-written title track, barely cracked the charts. The more reserved Many Moods features terrific displays of Orbison’s singing and an unusual number of covers, including the Righteous Brothers’ “Unchained Melody,” Gilbert Bécaud’s “What Now, My Love?,” the film theme “More,” a pair of Mickey Newbury songs, and a wonderfully melancholy reading of the Fantastiks’ “Try to Remember.”

Cover songs again dominate 1970’s Big O, including an eclectic selection of material from John D. Loudermilk (“Break My Mind”), the Beach Boys (“Help Me, Rhonda”), Motown (“Money”), the Platters (“Only You”), the Louvin Brothers (“When I Stop Dreaming”), Wilson Pickett (“Land of 1000 Dances”) and Orbison’s Sun-era B-side, “Go, Go, Go (Down the Line).” Recorded in the UK with backing by the Art Movement, Orbison’s enthusiasm pulls together this seemingly disparate material with performances that are spirited and charming. MGM passed on a stateside release at the time, making this album particularly unfamiliar to U.S. ears.

1972’s Roy Orbison Sings includes material co-written with Bill Dees, as well as Monument-era foil, Joe Melson. By this point, Orbison’s commercial success had fully evaporated, including his UK and Australian chart action, markets in which London had found success with singles that MGM couldn’t move in the US. Despite the lack of commercial response, Orbison kept investing himself in both his songwriting and recording, and nearing the end of his contract, he was still coming up with a few great tracks on each album. His cover of “Rings of Gold” is heavier than Don Gibson and Dottie West’s hit, and the vocal on Eddy Raven’s “Plain Jane Country (Come to Town)” reaches back to the sound of his Sun singles. 1972’s Memphis has a few nice moments, including a soulful cover of Don Gibson’s “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” the original “It Ain’t No Big Thing (But It’s Growing),” and a thoughtful expansion of the classic “Danny Boy.”

Closing out his contract with MGM, 1974’s Milestones feels like the end of a long haul. Ever the professional, Orbison gave the songs his best, highlighted by the original “Blue Rain (Coming Down)” and a cover of the Bee Gees’ “Words.” Capping the box set is a disc of sixteen non-LP singles and B-sides whose quality lends weight to Orbison’s complaint about MGM’s lack of promotional. Most of these A-sides could have been international hits, and even B-sides like “Shy Away” and “Flowers” should be better-known among Orbison’s recorded legacy. Though the albums were sprinkled with treasures, MGM B-Sides & Singles is a solid collection of memorable songs, clever productions and top-notch vocals. And even more so than the albums, the lack of commercial exposure and digital availability will make these single sides fresh to all but the most educated fans’ ears. The seven-minute, five-part “Southbound Jericho Parkway” is worth the price of admission on its own. The masters for this disc are stereo, except “So Good” and “So Young,” which are mono.

This is a monumental box. Each disc is delivered in a mini-LP reproduction of the original cover and screened with a period MGM label. The 64-page booklet features photos, covers, ephemera, and detailed liner and album notes by Alex Orbison. The audio was painstakingly transferred from the original multitrack tapes and mixed with the original albums as guides. The three years of work put into all aspects of this set (as well as the accompanying lost album, One of the Lonely Ones) has made it a true labor of love. Though the material could have been squeezed onto fewer discs, there’s a thrill to unboxing the individual albums and honoring their original configuration; those who opt for vinyl should find themselves fully transported back to the original artifacts. Orbison’s years at MGM may not have been as commercially fruitful as his time with Sun, Monument and Virgin, but the catalog is home to many artistic treasures that will be dear to the singer’s fans. [©2015 Hyperbolium]

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